There’s a feeling you get when you’ve eaten too many potato chips and you catch yourself with your hand in the bag. The compulsion to eat feels absurd. It’s not satisfying, you’re not hungry, and it doesn’t even taste good anymore. So how do you explain your newly salted fingertips? You can’t. You just hate yourself for it.
That’s the sort of feeling I get when I automatically open Facebook moments after closing. I scroll on, not even enjoying it anymore. I’ve already seen most of these posts and it’s not showing me the pictures of my nieces. I don’t even want to read what’s passing under thumb. I scroll without even hoping for a bite. It’s just hard to stop. It’s a compulsion. I just keep dipping my hand into the bag. Once I’ve finally set down my phone, I feel bloated, empty, like I just ate a bunch of junk food.
The drive to do something whether it is to eat food, have sex, or connect with people is not simply the reward for doing it. Appetites are not just a promise of being full but a compulsion to act. And when the compulsion takes over we can find ourselves pursuing food even after the reward has been suspended. It’s the image of damnation—always eating and never full, always reading and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth, endless information and yet no wisdom.
And so perhaps it’s no wonder that a lot of people have decided to give social media up for Lent. It feels like just another form of gluttony that has dominated these resolutions for a hundred years. It’s ready and warm whenever we have a craving, but it doesn’t satisfy.
Lent is a religious tradition set up to help people take control of their desires so that they can avoid the misery of unbridled desire. So people give up sugar. It’s not that sugar is evil. No one’s going to hell for eating a brownie. It’s about us. Gluttony is the sin, and it’s a sin that doesn’t condemn people to hell but is itself a taste of it.
Gluttony does not just shorten the quantity of our life but also the quality of it. You have a headache after McDonald’s, you eat alone in your car, and if the habit continues the odds are you’ll lose about a year of life. It is a flame that if let grow wild ceases to warm but incinerates.
The same is true for social media. Our eyes hurt from the screen light, we’re angry about the political opinions we read or the conversations we got ourselves into, and for those of us who started using Facebook in college, by the time we’re forty, we will have already lost a year of our lives scrolling. And this time, we’re not even playing the odds. That year is gone.
Of course, we’re bound to use up our time somehow and leisure time is about us, so who cares? But for a growing number of people, we feel a need to regain our leisure time. We admit the compulsion of social media but wish to realign it with the expected reward. Instead of pulling up to the drive through, we want a family dinner.
We all have leisure time (a lot more than we tend to think). That’s the reason our cities build parks, erect libraries, and sponsor museums. Millions of books and movies have been made to entertain and educate. Free time means we can pursue hobbies which do more than fill our time but also connect us with other people with similar interests. Sport teams continue to multiply across the world both amateur and professional. There’s a rich smorgasbord of options for our leisure enjoyment, but we tend to keep eating the same things: social media and the next episode.
The real tragedy of our choice is that it’s stagnant. After an hour on Facebook, after scanning through another 900-word essay, after the next formulaic episode, I am just as much a dilettante as I was before. I learned nothing, really. There is no real carry over. The next time I read an article, I am not better informed. I am not better networked. I remain at the same level of knowledge, the same nuance in opinion, and the same standard of entertainment. Perhaps that’s why we enjoy it. We are driven to a social outlet that is quick, ready, and requires little of us. But I believe for most of us, the compulsion used in this way seldom leads to fulfillment.
The idea of Lent helps us to imagine how we would spend our leisure time without social media. What if instead of Facebook, more people adopted hobbies? The great things about a hobby is that you’ll certainly improve. You’ll start out knowing nothing. You will have no idea how to build a train set, or restore a car, or point a camera. You will begin with a bunch of how-to articles. They’ll help you learn the lingo. But soon, even after just a few months, you’ll move past those intro articles and move on to something better.
Maybe you’ll buy books, subscribe to specialized magazines, connect with other enthusiasts. And a few years down the road, you’ll be published in the magazine you ordered. In the right scenario, you might even quit your day job because you’re no longer a dabbler. You’re the real thing.
Leisure time is an opportunity to do something fun, something fulfilling. To start down a road that will end with something you can point at and say, I made that. I remember looking in awe at the massive train panorama a friend of mine built. It filled the garage. Bridges raised and lowered, trains whizzed around the perimeter. Track splitters changed the direction of the locomotive. There were tunnels through Styrofoam mountains painted green and covered in miniature trees. And even people sitting, waiting for the train at the station. It was something you could watch for an hour, walk around and enjoy. But it was more than a fascination, it was a symbol of his time, life, and passion.
I watched another friend design furniture. It’s remarkable and looks like it’s built from honeycomb. He’s left his day job now and travels the world selling what he calls “functional art.”
For someone stuck at a dull job, leisure time is an opportunity to be creative, to reimagine what you’re capable of. For someone who has reached a dead end in their career, leisure time is a chance to venture in new directions. For someone who spends all day doing what they love, leisure gives them a chance to branch out as well as deepen their interest.
Leisure time is when we romance, it’s when we entertain and delight our brains. It’s where we build relationships. It’s when we’re our own boss. It’s the way we experiment. It’s a chance to do something daring. It’s an opportunity to excel. It’s perhaps your only opportunity to change the trajectory of your life.
Does that mean it shouldn’t be relaxing? Not at all. But it should be fulfilling. Like a good meal. At the end of the day, like at the end of a meal, you shouldn’t feel empty. If so, it might be worth using Lent to take back your leisure time.
If anyone reading this is wondering, is that me? If you’re unsure if your leisure time is fulfilling or not, here’s a few questions to ask yourself: Tomorrow will I know more than I do today? Will I have improved my relationships or have improved at something? Will I have taken another step forward? Because small, day to day steps, is how anyone becomes an expert.
If you have felt unsatiated by your social media outlets, take back your leisure time. And doing this doesn’t have to be exhausting. This isn’t studying for the bar. This is simply having fulfilling and meaningful leisure time rather than cheap, prepackaged meal.
So for those of you looking to improve your leisure time, here are some ideas:
Rather than scanning through another 900-word article, read a longer more nuanced article. Shoot for at least twice that long. And move up to 2,500 word articles in a few months. And eventually you’ll be reading books by the world’s leading experts on the subjects you care about. And twenty books down the road, you’ll be an expert yourself.
Rather than a general social media site like Facebook, join a specialized group like everyword Bible. If you’re Christian, here’s a site you can go to where you can study the Bible alongside other readers, ask and answer questions, and eventually become a scholar. It’s social media that’s dynamic. Because it’s built around the Bible, what you learn compounds from day to day. The more you use it, the more expert you’ll become.
If you’re an artist, devinantart is a social media outlet that allows you to connect with other artists and help each other improve your craft. Engaging there leads to your own artwork, your own creative release.
If you want to stick with Facebook that’s fine too. Just join a specific group that helps you do more than scroll. It’s a place to return, to go deeper, and learn more today than you did yesterday.
This Lent, let’s try to avoid the damnation of social media which traps you on the surface. We skim above the endless depths of the internet, we are enamored by the beauties of the world, but we remain unable to break through. That is a lamentable fate. A fate depicted by TS Eliot:
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.
We draw nearer to dust if tomorrow we are still scrolling through the same sort of thing. Tomorrow, we hold the same opinions. Tomorrow we read another 900-word article reinforcing the “facts” we already know. And five and ten years down the road we will be reading another article just like we watch another formulaic episode. We will have never ventured to read the primary source documents, or run our own evaluation of the findings, or published our own article. And maybe that’s fine. But there is a real hell in always reading and never learning.